By Rama Sobhani
In the fall of 1981, the roughly decade-old Knox County Parks and Recreation Department finally put to bed the long-running plan to develop a recreational lake in the county.
Efforts to build a 750-acre lake by damming Smalls Creek had been mired in opposition from the beginning despite having received federal money to study and eventually build a lake, the parks and recreation board gave the idea up. Landowners who would have had to give up portions of their property and others who just didn’t like the idea put up a fight that eventually delayed the project so long that financial and economic conditions made it unfeasible to spend any more time and money on it.
That’s when the parks and recreation board voted to shift gears to a totally new project that would still fulfill the board’s long-standing desire to see some kind of recreational facility come to fruition in the county.
It was originally dubbed the Knox County Park Project and hinged on the acquisition of a 250-acre piece of property being sold by the now-defunct energy company, Power Service Indiana. The department had already been granted hundreds of thousands of dollars by the federal government for the Smalls Creek Project, but it could only be used for that.
The new decade would bring new conversations and explorations about how to keep the money and momentum that the parks and recreation board and department had built in the quest to build the Smalls Creek lake. The gear shift played out successfully, and Knox County’s largest park would be built and come to be known as Ouabache Trails.
The fall of the Smalls Creek project
The death of the Smalls Creek lake project was a slow one. For about 10 years, the parks and recreation board had struggled with what those who were involved with the project still call a vocal minority. The reasons for the opposition included doubts about the quality of the water that would fill the lake (the tailwater of the lake was to be the former Enoco Mine site, which suffered from an acid mine drainage problem), to landowners refusing to give up farm ground to be flooded.
“People went up (to the state Legislature) and said, ‘We don’t want this thing, it’s not a good thing, we’re going to lose land, there’s going to be a gob pile here,’ before knowing all the details … even though most of the people against it were a minority.” — Vernon Houchins
Vernon Houchins, who was one of the first park board members and a supporter of the Smalls Creek Project, said that most of the opposition was without much merit and that beyond the local level, the project had strong support for a while, especially from the federal government.
“It went on for a while,” he said of the efforts to build a lake. “We had support from the Department of Natural Resources … everyone thought it was a good project, except the local people. (Project dissenters) thought the mine, the minerals were going to flush out of the soil. It was another thing the naysayers held against us.”
Eventually, the naysayers won, Houchins said.
“People went up (to the state Legislature) and said, ‘We don’t want this thing, it’s not a good thing, we’re going to lose land, there’s going to be a gob pile here,’ before knowing all the details … even though most of the people against it were a minority.”
But eventually, in October, 1981, the board had had enough and voted to abandon the Smalls Creek Project altogether. Just three years before, however, the parks and recreation department was approved for a Land and Water Conservation Fund grant from the federal government for the lake project and if it wanted to keep the money and put it to good use, a new project would have to be put together and the change approved by the state so the funds could be applied to it.
A new direction
In late October, then-superintendent, Mike Ginger, wrote to the DNR’s grants division asking to approve changing the funding over to the new “Knox County Park” project and received the blessing to do so.
Then, in June 1982, the parks and recreation board voted to approve beginning proceedings to buy a parcel of land that power company PSI was considering selling. As the lore goes, PSI had originally planned to put a power station along the Wabash River there but for whatever reason, abandoned those plans, leaving the site undeveloped for quite some time.
“The (parks and recreation) board was all for it,” Houchins said of developing a new park at the PSI property. “I don’t know anyone on the board who wasn’t.”
That was a change from the contentious Smalls Creek Project discussions. There were some park board members who were opposed to building a lake and threw up roadblocks along with local landowners. But the board was a united body when the PSI property was put on the table.
As the PSI property sat unused in any official capacity, local residents began using it for their own recreational needs. In a way, the land that would become Ouabache Trails was a park before it officially was. Stories from locals include using the property to hunt, ride dirt bikes, camp and fish. There are even tales of Bigfoot sightings.
As of summer, 1981, however, the interest from the parks and recreation board in making it an official public property was real, so they put in an application to reassign federal funds originally given for the Smalls Creek Project to a new one. That application, which survives as a large binder full of documents, includes very detailed plans for the new park. In the program narrative the original vision for Ouabache Trails called for either a 26- or 54-acre lake, depending on which site proved more feasible for its construction, picnicking facilities, hiking trails, primitive camping, playgrounds, a softball field, tennis courts, a basketball court, along with the support facilities needed to run the park. Houchins also said there were discussions about adding horse trails.
Some of those things came to pass and others didn’t. Most notably, the lake idea never panned out. Houchins said that was due mostly to, again, opposition from neighboring landowners, who he said were worried that their privacy would be impacted by activities at the lake, which likely would have directly bordered several tracts of private land. He is still somewhat disappointed that part of the plan never came to pass.
“People come and go,” he said of the idea that future landowners would accept a lake in their back yard. “I don’t know if that would gain sound backing again now or not.”
Support from the community
Word of the new project started to spread in the community and in 1982 the department started receiving several letters of support for it. All of those letters specifically mention a need for more recreational facilities in Knox County. One of those letters came from a person whose name has a familiar ring to Vincennes residents today, Duane Chattin, a current member of the Vincennes city council.
Chattin said that he still recalls the general atmosphere in the local economy at that time, during which a recession was happening. Chattin, who was a realtor then and president of the Knox County Board of Realtors in 1982, urged county council president Robert Lane to give his support to the purchase of the PSI property.
“Everyone was hurting due to a bad recession. That was particularly true of realtors since government policy pushed interest rates sky high. This environment made it very challenging for local government to invest in a new park. My view is that such investments are even more important at such times, as a strategy to help stabilize and improve quality-of-life issues. Fear at the time was that people would move away due to job layoffs and declining wages — compounded by high inflation,” Chattin said.
“While a new park was challenging at such a time, I’m proud that Knox County rose to make the investment.”
Chattin also later served on an ad hoc committee that gathered and returned input to the parks board on the new park’s operating procedures and proposed features.
The right name
In 1982, the purchase of land from PSI was completed and with its future as a park solidified, a name had to be settled upon. Houchins said that because of its proximity to the Wabash River and to the history of the area, with the Fort Knox II site right next door, the members of the parks board at the time decided early on in their discussions that the name should include the word Wabash in some capacity. A committee was formed to come up with several possibilities with preference given to iterations involving the word Wabash, or Ouabache, which is the French spelling. Eventually, Ouabache Trails was chosen and later documentation in the Land and Water Conservation Fund application use it, while preliminary documents refer to it as the Knox County Park project.
While the original vision for Ouabache Trails differed somewhat from what eventually materialized, its reception by the public was overwhelmingly positive. Apart from landowners who didn’t want to give anything up to support the Smalls Creek Lake Project, there seemed to be strong support for more recreational facilities in the county. At the time, the county parks and recreation department only operated a few small facilities — the Dicksburg Hills rest stop area, Hillcrest Park, Emison Mill Park and Pyramid Mound. There were only scarce opportunities for camping, and hiking locally. With the creation of Ouabache Trails, the parks and recreation board finally had the large park that it had been trying to give the people of Knox County for more than 10 years.